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Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (PlayStation) artwork

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (PlayStation) review

"Raziel died. But he's much better now! "

Raziel died. But he's much better now!

When you're the leader of a vampire clan that's taken over the earth, enslaved most of humanity, and blotted out the sun, what's there left to do? For Kain, the antihero of Blood Omen and ruler of the land of Nosgoth, the answer is...extreme body modding. A clan member named Raziel (that's you!) makes the mistake of growing a pair of wings without Kain's permission, and Kain retaliates by casting him into the Lake of the Dead. Tough crowd.

Several centuries later, a Cthulu-wannabe inhabiting the bottom of the lake resurrects Raziel, albeit with some rather extreme liposuction, glowing eyes, and minus some unnecessary body parts such as his, um, jawbone. Deciding that it's in their mutual interest to destroy Kain's legions, Raziel begins a long climb out of the bowels of the lake, with a new craving for...human souls.

The game opens with a nifty tutorial/getting-to-know-you session with your new god. As Raziel, you can jump, high jump, and use what's left of your wings to glide with the X button. The L2 and R2 buttons control camera panning; you can press them simultaneously for a first-person view. You attack with the square button, either with your claws or with the various boulders, staves, torches, and other weaponry found within Nosgoth, but this is best used in conjunction with the R1 autoface button. Without it, Raziel doesn't attack his foes so much as drunkenly lunge toward them. You stay "alive" by consuming the souls of the massively-mutated vampires you run across - by impaling them, incinerating them with torches, or throwing them into fire or water; and then holding the O button to absorb the sweet, sweet, soul-filled goodness they release.

Soul Reaver's primary gimmick - and as video game gimmicks go, it's a good one - is that you must swap between your physical and spectral forms to advance. If, in your physical form, you take too much damage, go for too long without soul-feasting, or fall into water, you'll lose corporeality and be drummed into the spectral realm. Here, you won't be able to open doors, throw switches, hold weapons, or interact in any way with your surroundings other than walking across terrain. (You can optionally revert to spectral form at any time, but the catch is that you must locate a re-entry point to return to your physical form.) Normally your spectral form is used solely for recuperation, though this isn't a hard-and-fast rule - in several areas there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the two realms, and some impassable obstacles in the physical realm will melt away in the spectral.

And with a clever setup like that, it makes perfect sense that Soul Reaver is mostly a collection of jump-to-here and Sokoban puzzles, interrupted by the occasional gratuitous round of combat, and topped off with horrid graphics. In fact, I'd - huh?

Oh, did I mention the game sucks? Sorry: the game sucks.

Last things first. Now that the PlayStation vs. PC vs. Saturn vs. Dreamcast wars are long over, and the fanboys involved have moved on to their new and stimulating careers in the field of narcotics abuse, we can say the following without fear: Soul Reaver is a friggin' eyesore. Some genres can get away with rampant pop-up, but for a platformer it's suboptimal to wonder, "is that a ledge I need to jump towards, or just a missing polygon?" all the time. Additionally, although the spectral realm has an appropriate evening-blue cast, the physical realm suffers from an overuse of...snot green. This HeinekenVision soon becomes a blessing in disguise, as it becomes clear that whenever a shade of brown or beige shows up, the designers have the unerring ability of making it the most washed-out or gaudiest shade possible.

None of this is helped by the absence of maps and compasses, so when the Elder God announces that your latest destination is "north of the Klaatu pillars, near the Hackensack pyramids," well, get ready for some intense wandering around action, because you won't have a clue where to go. Combine this with environments padded with featureless twisty-turny corridors designed to reduce pop-up (hah!), slowdown (double hah!), and load times (OK, I'll give credit where it's due), and your spatial sense will be reduced to staggering-drunk levels.

Once in a while you'll be interrupted in your aimless meanderings by a vampire attack, but despite the various forms the vampires take, they all have the same pattern: hop x degrees around you y times, then claw or bite you. What little challenge these fights possess is usually due to the epileptic camera programming when fighting close to walls, or bugs in the control system - after picking up a wounded enemy, Raziel starts to wobble like a shopping cart with a broken wheel, making precision throwing impossible. And even that challenge goes out the window once you've obtained the force projectile power-up halfway through the game. With its auto-aim and absurd range, the force projectile renders vampires completely defenseless, reducing all the non-boss encounters to little more than busy work.

Speaking of busy work, the meat-and-potatoes of the game involves running around the deserted ruins of Nosgoth, solving contrived jumping, switch-pulling, and giant-block-pushing puzzles. The block puzzles are especially irritating - you're not allowed to rotate the block faces in place, so if the front of a block is facing north right-side-up, and needs to face south right-side-up to solve a puzzle, the block must be flipped four times to make it so. No attempt is made to explain why giant blocks are used as keys in future Nosgoth. I guess methamphetamine use took over once body modding got stale.

This Myst-for-morons aesthetic is interrupted every once in a while by the boss showdowns with your "brothers." Over the past few centuries, they seem to have gone overboard with the whole body modding fad, and their designs are the game's highlight. There's Melchiah, a crawling red-eyed beast with skulls jutting out of his knees, who literally laughs off your attacks and chases you even in your spectral form. And there's Zephon, who decided to emulate the Alien Queen, with one difference: his still-human face splits into three parts to reveal a lamprey's maw. And let's not forget Kain himself, who...runs away after you hit him three times.


And then, unfortunately, you have to fight them. Well, actually, you don't fight the bosses, you solve them, and there's only one (contrived) solution. (Hmmm, there's a cage in Melchiah's lair with a giant rotating meat grinder above it - gosh, maybe I need to lure him into there, huh? Yes, but you have to impale him on the doorway gates twice before you're allowed to do that. Why? Because.)

There's no other reason to put up with this game. Other than the main theme, the synth-schlock soundtrack by Kurt (Information Society) Harland is tuneless, and soon becomes the equivalent of a car alarm that goes off at three in the morning and refuses to just shut up, already. The cutscenes are backed by a talented British cast, but the writing is hambone hackwork, with lines like "The earth strains to shrug off the pestilence of Kain's parasitic empire" and "My once-proud kin, wiped from this world like excrement from a boot!" With each area you enter, you get a scene with the Elder God telling you how in the Olden Days it was all hopping bunnies, smiles, and sunshine, and how it's now a wasteland of decrepitude and reality-TV reruns; it all seems like an elaborate justification as to why there's an average of one monster per acre. The game has some mechanics borrowed from other sources (warp gates, hidden optional power-ups, Metroid's "open" level design and Mega Man's technique assimilation) in an attempt to spice things up; personally, by the end I was reading through the Soul Reaver FAQs to get it all over with faster.

And how about that ending, huh?

In the wake of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars sagas, it seems that every half-wit designer, having failed to demonstrate any wit, charm, inventiveness, revelation, or even gratuitous nudity in their first outing, still feels the need to end things with a demand for a second chance. I had assumed that Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance had perfected the Asshole Ending for all time. But no. Soul Reaver's lone ending is not only a cliffhanger, it's a cliffhanger that implicitly erases the game out of existence. The "Star Trek: Voyager" Temporal Reset Button gets pressed in the endgame, and bada-boom bada-bing, it's Sorry, Folks, That Really Wasn't The Future Of Nosgoth, But We'll Be Sure To Explain Everything In The Exciting Sequel!

Now, I can't really blame the designers for denying that Soul Reaver actually happened. It's just that some us...don't have that luxury.

And yet, through it all, Raziel soldiers on. Maybe it's the theological simplicity of his situation: no need for meditation, sacraments, or When Good Things Happen To Bad People. When his world gets shoehorned into an ugly, tedious Tomb Raider clone like this, there's only one theological explanation available or necessary: God's just a sadist, that's all.

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Community review by deadtrees (June 14, 2005)

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